Why do online communities get worse as they get bigger?
Programmer Robert Seaton has a pretty good stab at this question in a blog post here. Seaton says we behave better with people when we know we’re going to have to interact with them again in the future. The penalty for rudeness in a small community is exclusion from a group, but if you can be rude and disappear into the crowd, this penalty evaporates. We could characterise this as a difference between living in a city, where bad behaviour disappears into the ether, and living in a village, where bad behaviour comes back to haunt you. Online cities like YouTube have notoriously bad comment sections, whereas people tend to be more civil to one another in online villages.
In teacher-speak, this is essentially a behaviour management problem. Like a well-ordered classroom, large online communities need to have participants who behave out of self-motivation, with oversight from authority for when this isn’t enough. In the history of web 2.0 so far, we’ve seen three main tools website owners use to keep their communities playing nice: moderators, reputation, and upvotes. Moderators represent the teacher/police authority figure, and reputation ties your behaviour to an identity. There’s been a lot of discussion about these, and they’re undoubtedly important for keeping debates on the web nice and civil. The key questions people talk about are things like Who gets to be a moderator? and Should we allow anonymous comments? But upvotes… well, they just seem a bit neglected.
Upvotes are interesting because (1) they work, (2) they don’t cost anything, and (3) lots of online communities don’t use them effectively. One site that has really harnessed their power is Reddit, which is also one of the few major websites where the comments are regularly worth reading. This isn’t a coincidence, by the way.
For the uninitiated, upvotes work like this: each comment has an up-arrow or a down-arrow next to it; visitors to the website upvote valuable comments and downvote the low-quality ones. By default, comments are arranged by the number of upvotes, so in theory anyone visiting the the site sees the highest quality comments at the top. This functions as a kind of comment moderation which is carried out by the community rather than by a designated authority figure. How democratic!
Users also gain or lose points for a rating of their overall comment quality; this is called their comment karma. The whole system is usually made public, so any user can see any other user’s karma. Users seem to care about their karma, albeit in a jokey way, partly because it dictates their status and reputation within the group, and partly because it’s nice when people give you points. One reason the karma system is so clever is that it provides extrinsic and intrinsic motivators; that is, it both polices against bad comments and creates a self-motivation for people to take a bit of care over what they write.
If this system’s so good, why hasn’t it spread like wildfire across the web? Well, it has and it hasn’t. Let’s look at a few comment systems:
YouTube: uses upvotes (thumbs up) and downvotes (thumbs down), but inexplicably doesn’t sort by quality. As I mentioned earlier, the standard of comments is terrible.
The Guardian: uses upvotes (recommendations) but no downvotes, and again doesn’t sort by quality. Standard of comments is pretty poor.
The Nation: uses comments managed by Disqus, which uses more or less the same system as Reddit. Annoyingly though, threads can’t be collapsed, so you have to scroll through a lot of replies (which generally aren’t of the same quality as the original comment).
Coursera: discussion forums use upvotes and downvotes just like Reddit. The problem here is that on many discussion boards, a relatively small number of upvotes (say, three) can get a comment listed at the top. This is a good example of an upvote system failing simply because users are neglecting to use it.
As a final point, if online communities use upvotes, they need to be careful that the system isn’t characterised as a popularity contest. Ideally, you want participants to upvote comments that add to the debate, rather than ones that they merely agree with. Users should be able to voice unpopular views as long as they’re respectful to the community and well argued, so it’s essential to have guidelines which establish what an upvote means. Reddit and Coursera use a bit of tooltip text which briefly reminds users of the guidelines each time they hover over the upvote/downvote arrow, and I think that’s a fairly unobtrusive way to do it.
Comment sections are one of the features that make the web what it is, so it seems odd to me that so many of the larger sites have left theirs broken. Maybe it’s just too difficult to retro-fit an upvote system where one didn’t exist before. All the same, I’d advise future MOOC providers to follow Coursera’s lead, and I’d advise Coursera to get more of their users to use their upvote system. Democracy only works when people vote.